On the way back from a group discussion where we – perhaps a dozen people – were pondering some theses of the philosopher Lev Isaakovich Shestov (1866-1938), my train to the Black Forest made its way through the Murg valley. Looking out of the window, mountain followed mountain, hill followed hill, tree followed tree; in between, villages and farmsteads, all very similar, but no two elements identical. And yet their arrangement produced a harmonious whole, the hills or houses lined up in chains seemed to follow a rhythm or form a pattern. I couldn’t say exactly what the regularity was. I only know that it is there. Of course it is there. It is obvious. Perhaps, after looking at the measurements recorded in topographical maps, one could even work out a mathematical formula that breaks down the clearly perceptible harmony in this landscape to a few symbols: zn+1=zn² + c or something like that. I am almost certain that this has already been undertaken.
Shestov refused such undertakings. This rational grasp of life and its manifestations was repugnant to him. The phenomena of this world appeared to him as miracles that could not be met by means of reason. He refused to press the individual, the unique, the singular into categories that could be easily calculated or manipulated. If there was a chance to escape the “gruesome horror,” the “wild insanity” of human existence, it would not lie in the rational mind with its techno/logical solutions, but in hope.
In his Kant-critical critique of pure reason, if we want to call his train of thought that, Shestov goes so far as to doubt everything that seems “natural”, “self-evident” and “logical” to our intellect, including death. For it is possible, he thinks, that the phenomena we perceive are a product of our mind. He felt driven to despair and madness by the finality of rational certainties. He felt there was no reason to help nature in its cruel business. Miracles become possible by believing in them, not by rationally tackling a problem.
So, are the laws of nature pure mental constructs? Do we recognise necessities because we wish to see them? Is the harmony I perceive in the succession of Black Forest hills imagination? Is death, which puts an end to every life, a delusion? And also the apple that never falls far from the tree?
I am not sure that these questions can be answered conclusively. If it is reported over the millennia – and we see for ourselves every day – that an object stripped of its support falls vertically to the ground, may we assume or even phrase a law that it follows? Do we understand enough to undertake that? I suppose we could say that the law exists and operates objectively, regardless of how we formulate it subjectively. Nevertheless, it seems that it is always possible to change the usual course of events through miracle, faith, wish, willpower or deed. How do freedom and regularity relate to each other? Can they be brought together?
I would like to answer here with a clear yes. There is a law underlying the patterns we observe in the structure of the universe and the processes in the relationship between the forces within it. It is neither arbitrary nor changeable and cannot be broken. It has nothing in common with laws postulated by human beings. It merely specifies the conditions of existence: for example, those of the apple tree and its fruit. When exactly the fruit leaves the tree may be the their free-will decision, but it does not provide for flying to distant shores. Fruit and tree enjoy freedom only within the framework of their physical and co-environmental conditions.
The same applies to the human domain – especially here, if one wants to believe that the human mind is superior to that of its fellow creatures. Harmony arises when our thoughts, desires, beliefs, feelings, will and action come into harmony with natural laws.
We realise our freedom within the framework of natural conditions, not against them. Freedom can therefore also be seen as freedom from nonsensical wanting to be free from the laws of nature. In music, for example, an infinite number of tone combinations are possible, but we only cross the border from cacophonous noise to harmonic music when we observe certain laws. The rules to follow when writing a symphony are relatively simple. But the freedoms one enjoys within these rules allowed Beethoven to create nine different masterpieces, and numerous other composers countless more.
And we also find this dynamic between immutable law and freedom in Natural Law. Within the framework of our physical, mental, spiritual and environmental conditions, we are completely free to shape our existence; the laws inherent in the universe merely determine the consequences. We are therefore free to consider gravity surmountable by pure will and learn something about nonsensical concepts of freedom when we fall. We are also free to harm our neighbours, but this too will have consequences, partly for ourselves in time, partly in a roundabout way across larger spaces and time spans, and mainly through our community, as history teaches us.
Nature or the Creator of the universe did not publish the Law of Nature in printed proclamations and manifestos, because that was not necessary. We and all other creatures are endowed with the ability and freedom to recognise and successfully navigate the world we live in, despite all its complexity. Our attempts to put it into words or recreate it in formulae necessarily reduce this complexity to simplistic representations. Our descriptions of Natural Law should therefore be taken with a grain of salt, as they are shaped by cultural influences on our perceptions. But the patterns they tell of, as far as we can compare perceptions across time and space, appear universal. They call for recognition and imitation in a living way – with heart and mind – so that harmony may prevail.
And what about Shestov? What about miracles? Well, there might be a kernel of truth there. In any case, between perception and reality lies no one-way street. There seem to be closer ties between them than school knowldedge would have us believe. But in the end, if I understood correctly, Shestov was not so much concerned with the efficacy of miracles as with the freedom to shape one’s existence according to points of view other than cold rationality. Some people might think that was stupid, but it was his right. Any action that does not initiate harm against others is a right, and no priest, no majority, no judge can change that.
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